Ask a Senior Analyst — Valentina Colombo

Wikistrat’s Facebook and Twitter followers recently engaged in a 24-hour exclusive Q&A session with one of Wikistrat’s Senior Analysts, Valentina Colombo. Questions and Ms. Colombo’s answers are transcribed below.

Valentina Colombo

Valentina Colombo’s research focuses on democratization in the Middle East and North Africa and on radical Islam in the Middle East and Europe. She teaches geopolitics of the Islamic world at the European University in Rome and is a Senior Fellow at the European Foundation for Democracy in Brussels. She is also a member of the Committee for Italian Islam at the Ministry of Interior, Rome. Her publications (in Italian) include Christianity in the Arab World (2013), Forbidden in the Name of Allah (2010) and Islam: Instructions for Use (2009).

Mabel Gonzalez Bustelo: Do you see the Muslim Brotherhood, Hizb ut-Tahrir and similar organizations as potential allies in the struggle against terrorism and violence including first Al Qaeda and now ISIS? What could be the impact of political events in Egypt, notably their criminalization and declaration as a terrorist organization, in their political evolution and influence in the Muslim world?

Answer: When ISIS’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the “return of caliphate,” a heated debate was ignited among the most relevant actors of radical Islam, in the Middle East and in the West, about the Islamic legitimacy of the establishment of a new caliphate. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire it was the first time that someone declared the return of the caliphate ruling on a specific territory, but at the same time with universal aspiration for all Muslims. A closer look at the different reactions shows that in the Islamic world, there are at least two main ways to understand the caliphate: the jihadi one, which is unambiguous and clear, and the Muslim Brotherhood’s, which is more subtle and pragmatic.

The Brotherhood, Hizb ut-Tahrir, Hezbollah and Al Qaeda all reacted in a negative and critical way. All organizations criticized the way al-Baghdadi imposed a caliphate from above without the consensus of the Islamic community. The International Union of Muslim Scholars, linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and headed by Yusuf Qaradawi, said although it shared the “dream” of reestablishing the caliphate, “Islam has taught us and the school of life has taught us that large projects require great reflection, deep preparation, a convergence of forces.” A caliph needed to be “representative of the umma,” it added, and it was only for this reason “the announcement of the caliphate is not sufficient to establish the caliphate.”

This is why I do not believe the Muslim Brotherhood or any other Islamist organization could be a partner in the fight against ISIS. It has also to be noted that after the beginning of the military coalition attacks on ISIS, the Brotherhood has been very critical of intervention.

As far as the criminalization of the Brotherhood in Egypt is concerned, it will certainly shift their main Middle Eastern headquarters from Egypt to some other safe haven such as Qatar or Turkey. As a matter of fact, the Turkish government, ideologically linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, has recently acted in an ambiguous way in the fight against ISIS, showing that the ideology of the Brotherhood and ISIS can sometimes converge.

Curious Wisdom“: Is a “moderate” jihadist simply an oxymoron? If so, why do we continue to hear this label as if it is valid?

Answer: In 2009, Fareed Zakaria wrote in Newsweek magazine that it should be “worth stepping back and trying to understand the phenomenon of Islamic radicalism” because “not all these Islamists advocate global , host terrorists or launch operations against the outside world — in fact, most do not.”

Then he gave a shocking example:

Consider the most difficult example, the Taliban. The Taliban have done all kinds of terrible things in Afghanistan. But so far, no Afghan Taliban has participated at any significant level in a global terrorist attack… Most Taliban want Islamic rule locally, not violent jihad globally.

I believe that describing as “moderate” a jihadi only because he is fighting in Afghanistan in Pakistan or in a faraway country is simply a naive oxymoron, but it does not change the content of the term jihadi nor does it change the aims and strategy of jihadis.

A similar oxymoron has been used after the so-called Arab spring to define the Muslim Brotherhood as “moderate” extremists. However, as Mohammed Charfi, former Tunisian minister of education, observed in his essay, “Islam et liberté,”

Today the observers call a “moderate” Islamist the person who, with Westerners, uses reasonable language and who does not choose an openly violent action. However, even though his style is calm and the rejection of violence seems sincere, since the movement is always linked to sharia and the sacralization of history, his moderation remains provisional and indicates a strategy of waiting, because the ingredients of radicalization have not disappeared.

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Wikistrat Infographic: Far Right’s Impact on Europe

High unemployment, problems in the eurozone and anti-immigration sentiment have led to a resurgence of far-right or nationalist movements in Europe. Wikistrat’s analysts assess the impact of these movements.

Hungary is experiencing a rollback of democratic freedoms under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. France’s Marine Le Pen stands a solid chance in the next French presidential election. Geert Wilders of the Netherlands, who has received significant media attention for his views on Islam, is a power player in Dutch politics, controlling the fourth-largest party in parliament. Golden Dawn in Greece has literally used Nazi imagery in their political branding. And if Russia is to be considered European, its rightward slide over the last few years should be evident enough on its own.

In an online discussion forum, Wikistrat’s analysts examined the impact that the rise of the far right might have on the European Union, NATO, minorities, defense spending, counterterrorism operations, immigration, xenophobia, social services, separatism and more.

Far Right Impact on Europe - Wikistrat Infographic

This infographic illustrates some of the key insights from the dicsussions. Insights from Wikistrat’s analysts include the possibility that:

  • Rising nationalism in the United Kingdom may have an effect on the EU as a whole, spurring decentralization in order to entice Britian to remain a member.
  • Should France elect Marine Le Pen in the next presidential election, NATO withdrawal is possible, but detachment from the military structure is more likely.
  • Swiss far-right parties will isolate the country further from the EU and NATO, and could cause problems for immigrants from the former Yugoslavia.
  • Germany is highly unlikely to see a far-right resurgence, but if it did, it would be a movement of extreme isolationism.
  • The Danish People’s Party, while right-wing, is more hawkish than some of its European counterparts. It would likely call for an increase in defense spending.
  • Swedish far-right movements could pose a threat to the comparatively large Muslim refugee population in the country.
  • Hungary, if going through a phase of illiberalism, will not necessarily align with Moscow. The shift to illiberalism is likely to be temporary.
  • Should the extreme far-right take power in Hungary, there is a slim chance that there could be a rise in irredentist feelings against Romania.
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    New Wikistrat Simulation: The Global Impact of Rising U.S. Interest Rates

    The Global Impact of Rising US Interest Rates banner

    This week, Wikistrat launched a new crowdsourced simulation to explore what political and economic factors will contribute to rising U.S. interest rates by the year 2016, and what impacts this rise will have on the global economy.

    Since the 2008 recession, the U.S. Federal Reserve has kept its benchmark interest rate at historic lows, around 0.25 percent. In turn, everything from home mortgages to consumer credit cards have hovered near rock bottom interest rates for years. But given the recent pace of the U.S. economic recovery, “the Fed” is set to raise the key Federal Funds Rate interest rate for the first time in eight years.

    The United States and the dollar, as the world’s largest economy and de facto world reserve currency, are vital economic engines for global markets and even a small increase in interest rates will have an impact on markets and industries worldwide. While there is still some disagreement among economists as to what mix of inflation, monetary policy, economic strength and the supply and demand of funds contributes to the interest rate, this simulation asks Wikistrat’s analysts to take all of these factors into account and envision a 2016 with interest rates that are higher than those of today.

    WS AnalystsAre you interested in participating in simulations like these? Apply for membership to the analytic community here.

    Stay tuned to Wikistrat’s Facebook and Twitter channels for updates and insights from this simulation!

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    The European Union in 2030 Report Released

    The EU in 2030 banner

    The European Union has more than a half-century of impressive successes, but it has lost direction and momentum over the last decade. Wikistrat’s recently-concluded strategic simulation “The EU in 2030″ articulates a defined sequence of policy initiatives that have the clear ability to remedy that situation, if they are adopted and implemented in the order set out.

    EU2030 report cover

    Earlier this year, Wikistrat ran a three-week long crowdsourced simulation to explore the centrifugal and centripetal forces that will shape the EU’s future between now and 2030 across three domains: economic and financial; political and security; and social, cultural and human.

    On the one hand, the EU has achieved certain supranationalism in the economic sphere such as the common currency, fiscal targets and growing acceptance of transfer payments. On the other hand, its political integration schemes, such as the common foreign and security policy, remain largely stuck at the intergovernmental level. In this way there is a tension between the relative vitality and success of European economic integration on the one hand and, on the other hand, the lack of vitality of a values-oriented common European identity.

    The EU has thus turned in a mixed performance across the range of broad policy issue-areas including capabilities, integration level, demographics, membership and global presence. Yet the EU has succeeded impressively at enlarging its membership. The original six-member European Economic Community enlarged to become nine, then 15 members; once the Cold War ended, it rapidly became the European Union of the 28 that we know today, with a few candidates still in line.

    Considering these historical strengths and weaknesses, Wikistrat evaluated four master scenarios for the EU’s development as an integration organization up to the year 2030. These “Master Narratives,” outlined in the simulation’s report by Wikistrat Senior and Lead Analyst Robert M. Cutler, show that there in fact exists a possible future path toward enhancing both economic performance and socio-political cohesion in the EU. This unique path was stress-tested and revealed to be extremely robust yet at the same time sensitive to the timing and sequencing of steps.

    This path to combined prosperity and social cohesion comprises a series of interdependent policy initiatives ranging across the board, from comprehensive planning to address both legal and illegal immigration as well as solve intra-EU labor mobility problems, to deeper banking and financial integration for enhanced global trade liberalization (with specific recommendations for European Central Bank policy and the euro currency zone). This sequenced series of policy initiatives also includes the need for the EU need to formulate an enhanced geopolitical profile, articulate its real policy goals and deploy resources in favor of realizing them.

    That is something that the EU has shied away from indeed since its inception, because the trauma of World War II left such a bitter aftertaste for anything remotely resembling geopolitics. The EU’s failure in the Ukraine crisis highlights this insufficiency, however, illustrating how it is an absolute necessity for Europe to claim its place in the world. Such an explicit, consciously articulated geopolitical profile is also a prerequisite for implementing any of the other steps earlier mentioned.

    The simulation offers a clear and unambiguous roadmap for the EU to get to that place, as well as a detailed description of how the EU’s policymaking process should itself be framed, in order to achieve the dual goal of strong European economic growth and strong European identity, based upon European values, with a target date of 2030.

    Click here or on the cover image to download the full PDF report.

    For more information about Wikistrat and for access to the full simulation archive, contact

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    Southeast Asia 2035: A Realized Economic Promise? Report Released

    Southeast Asia 2035 simulation banner

    Will the countries of Southeast Asia remain stuck in the “middle-income trap”? Or will they realize their economic promise by 2035? In the report released today, Wikistrat shows what it would take for the region to get there in twenty years’ time — and what futures await it if fails.

    SEA2035 report cover

    Southeast Asia’s growth outperformed other regions during the Global Financial Crisis of 2008-2009 and recent projections point to continued strong growth. As production costs are increasing in China, multinational firms look to Southeast Asia for its lower cost of production, its growing middle class and its rising education levels.

    Yet some dark clouds can be seen gathering on the horizon. As income levels rise, so do wages, thereby undercutting Southeast Asia’s low-cost advantage. Squeezed in between other low-wage economies and advanced high-income ones, the region could stagnate unless it pushes its way to high-income status with innovation, advanced technology and high-skilled labor. In other words, the question is will Southeast Asia overcome what the World Bank calls the “middle-income trap” that sees many other developing countries failing to rise to the next level?

    There are challenges beyond the economic. These range from major trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, promoted by the United States, China’s Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, vast potential of oil and gas resources within or outside disputed waters in the South China Sea, the American “pivot” to Asia, China and Japan’s rising nationalism, global geopolitical rivalry, water scarcity and climate change.

    This summer, Wikistrat conducted an online, crowdsourced simulation in which its analysts were asked to identify which of these factors, or combinations of factors, will contribute to Southeast Asia’s economic success over the next twenty years. In the report released today, Wikistrat Senior Analyst Andrew K.P. Leung summarizes the findings of 50 competing scenarios in four “Master Narratives” that each describe a possible future for the region

    Click here or on the cover image to download the full PDF report.

    For more information about Wikistrat and for access to the full simulation archive, contact

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    Turkey and Qatar: Deal-Makers or Deal-Breakers?

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    Today, Wikistrat’s analysts begin exploring the ways in which Qatar and Turkey can use their positions in the Middle East to influence each other, the region and regional radical Islamist groups in a two-week crowdsourced strategic simulation.

    John Kerry

    State Department Photo

    Turkey and Qatar are pivotal “swing states” within the broader Middle East. Each possesses firmly rooted ties with the broader West. Qatar has transformed its tremendous resources into a sustainable economic vehicle by acquiring a large stake in developed businesses. Cooperation also extends to defense and security issues with Doha emerging as a leading purchaser of American-made military equipment in recent years. Similarly, Turkey has long sought greater economic integration with the West. Despite not securing admission, the EU has become Turkey’s biggest import and export market. Turkey, also, remains a full member of NATO, cooperating on terrorism and Syria.

    At the same time, both countries have maintained foreign and internal policies that set them apart, not only from the West, but also their regional neighbors. Though Qatar has adopted liberalizing reforms — 2004 saw the passage of a constitution that recognized women’s suffrage — it remains a conservative country, using its Al-Jazeera media outlet to promote a distinctly Islamic identity. Likewise, Doha sought an organizing role in the chaos that emerged following the Arab Awakening, providing extensive support to Islamist groups in both Libya and Syria. Turkey, on the other hand, has impeded efforts to isolate Iran, maintaining high amounts of trade in the face of international sanctions. Moreover, its response to the regional turmoil wrought by the Arab uprisings — which included the provision of political support to the Morsi regime in Egypt — led to a rupture in ties with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.

    Both countries now stand at a crossroads. In 2013 Sheikh Hamad abdicated his monarchy to his 35 year old son, Sheikh Tamim, leaving it to him to guide Qatar in the decades ahead. Meanwhile, Turkey’s evolution will be presided over by increasingly autocratic, state structures, following constitutional changes that enabled the AKP domination. The path each adopts will have significant ramifications for the region, especially the future of radical Islam. Qatar’s support for religious based groups, and Turkey’s faith in the notion of “Islamic democracy” hold promise to groups seeking a broader role for religion in politics. At the same time, Qatar and Turkey’s high level of co-operation with the West are likely to see them come under pressure to do more to stem the advance of groups — embodied by ISIS — that mobilize religion as a motivator for violence.

    WS AnalystsAre you interested in participating in simulations like these? Apply for membership to the analytic community here.

    Stay tuned to Wikistrat’s Facebook and Twitter channels for updates and insights from this simulation!

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    Ebola: A Global Health Challenge Report Released

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    As the Ebola virus reaches Europe and North America, Wikistrat looks at the challenge posed by the epidemic to health policy globally. A report proposing four future pathways for the disease, and how the global public health system manages it, is released today.

    EGHC report cover

    Since a major outbreak of the Ebola virus disease was first reported in Guinea in March 2014, an epidemic has spread across West Africa. Already, this is the worst Ebola outbreak in recorded history. The disease is no longer contained to the region: a Saudi Arabian man traveling home from Sierra Leone is believed to have died of Ebola in early August and several Americans are treated for the disease in the United States. There is no known cure, although one American doctor diagnosed with the virus was found Ebola-free after taking experimental drugs in August.

    While there is widespread concern about the spread of the disease, there are arguments against Ebola becoming a pandemic. The virus is not airborne and cannot survive outside the body for long. Symptoms become apparent quickly and patients typically die before infecting more than one or two others.

    These realities have done little to quell the panic. Saudi Arabia has stopped issuing visas to Muslim pilgrims from West Africa. British Airways has suspended all flights to and from both Liberia and Sierra Leone. Western governments have advised their citizens to avoid the region. However, civil unrest, the absence of adequate medical services and low trust in both authority and foreign aid workers might pose the biggest risk.

    From August to September 2014, Wikistrat conducted a crowdsourced simulation during which experts examined the challenge posed by the West African Ebola outbreak to health policy globally. Analysts proposed both positive and negative outcomes within comprehensive, competing scenario pathways of the epidemic’s spread and termination.

    In the report released today, Wikistrat Senior Analyst Prof. Randy Cheek synthesizes the dozens of scenarios that were proposed during the simulation and offers key strategic takeaways for companies and governments that could be affected by the epidemic.

    Click here or on the cover image to download the full PDF report.

    For more information about Wikistrat and for access to the full simulation archive, contact

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    Ask a Senior Analyst — Carl Wege

    Wikistrat’s Facebook and Twitter followers recently engaged in a 24-hour exclusive Q&A session with one of Wikistrat’s Senior Analysts, Carl Wege. Questions and Prof. Wege’s answers are transcribed below.

    Carl Wege

    Carl Wege is a Professor of Political Science at the College of Coastal Georgia. He has traveled in Asia, Latin America, Africa and Israel and published a variety of articles discussing terrorism and security relationships involving Hezbollah, Syria and Iran.

    Etah Ewane: Historically, relations between Iran and Arab countries have been hostile and Syria has always been used as a tool through which Teheran has supplied weapons to various Islamist groups. To what extent would the collapse of the Assad regime in Syria affect Iran’s geostrategic influence in the region?

    Answer: The collapse of the Assad regime would be devastating to everything Iran has accrued in regional influence since the 1979 revolution. The Syrian state has been shattered and Bashar Assad is now little more than the local face of an Iranian occupation that has shed rivers of Sunni blood in his attempt to maintain power. Therefore any successor Sunni government would be hostile to Iran.

    Since the Islamic State has now spit Iraq in two, Iran’s Resistance Axis (Jabhat al-Muqawama) has been shattered from the Levant to the Persian Gulf. The collapse of the Assad government has effectively left a Russian-supported and Iranian-dependent canton of internally-displaced minorities including most Alawite, Christians and some clans of neutralist Druze encompassing the space in western Syria. Essentially Iran, primarily through the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guard, is managing a constellation of militias ranging from Alawite Jaysh al-Sha’bi and Ba’ath Battalions to Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and Iraqi Kata’ib Hezbollah and Asa’ib al-Haq militias.

    In the end, though, it is likely that the militias defending this western Syrian rump state will essentially control a series of cantons united primarily by allegiance to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard through the figure head of Bashar Assad. “Saving Syria” therefore is second only to the acquisition of nuclear weapons in Tehran’s hierarchy of needs. (more…)

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    Top Four Possible Global Impacts of the Ebola Outbreak

    Wikistrat recently concluded a crowdsourced strategic simulation to study the implications of the Ebola virus outbreak. The infographic released today shows the top four possible global impacts of the disease, from Africa to China to Europe to the United States.

    EGHC infographic

    Click here or on the image above to see the full version.

    For more information about Wikistrat and for access to the full simulation archive, contact

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    Ask a Senior Analyst — Christine MacNulty

    Wikistrat’s Facebook and Twitter followers recently engaged in a 24-hour exclusive Q&A session with one of Wikistrat’s Senior Analysts, Christine MacNulty. Questions and Ms. MacNulty’s answers are transcribed below.

    Christine MacNulty

    Christine MacNulty, CEO of Applied Futures, Inc., has forty years’ experience as a consultant in long-term strategic planning for concepts as well as organizations. She has also specialized in understanding cultural change. For the last twenty years, most of her consultancy has been conducted for the Department of Defense and NATO. She has also worked with many Fortune Global 500 companies.

    She is the co-author of Strategy with Passion: A Leader’s Guide to Exploiting the Future, to be released in November 2014.

    Christine MacNulty: Since both questions relate to Values, some background is required:

    Values are emotional constructs that underpin attitudes and behavior. They are closely related to beliefs, which are convictions that are held to be true by individuals or groups and they are also related to psychological needs. They are longer term and they change only slowly. Beliefs are long-held perceptions that have generally been inculcated from birth by family, teachers and leaders of the society, although they can and do change slowly over time. In some cases they may change quickly, generally through some extreme (good or bad) event. Motivations are the factors that compel a person or group to act and they are functions of values, beliefs and needs. Understanding motivations helps us understand why people do as they do. Behavior tells us the what people are doing. If we understand the why, we have a greater chance to anticipate what people are likely to do next.

    The values models we use are based on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and augmented by the work of Shalom Schwartz, Geert Hofstede, Ron Inglehart and others.

    Monica J. Jerbi: A number of peer-reviewed studies analyzing the cultural theories of Hofstede (1984), Triandis (1995) and Schwartz (1994) show how macro-social and macro-economic variables impact and actually change culture over time, particularly in regards to individualism/collectivism, power distance and autonomy/conservation. These values also shape a country’s ability to transition to a functioning pluralistic democracy, rate of economic development, the likelihood of extreme corruption derailing democracy, etc.

    Considering war disrupts macro-social and macro-economic variables, how does this make framing behavioral/strategic communications messages to alter behaviors and attitudes (particularly aimed at potential insurgents and terrorists) harder and what can be done to overcome these additional obstacles?

    Answer: First, from my own perspective, I think that assigning a direction of causality to such factors as macro-economic variables is difficult, especially with respect to values. Factors such as access to education and communication may increase the numbers of people with certain values more rapidly than they would otherwise, but it’s a change in values in the first place that creates and increases the demand for the education and communication. And the question itself states that values shape such elements as democracy, economic development, etc. And I agree with that.

    However, moving on to the second part of the question: At a very broad-brush level, war generally occurs because one leader/group with one set of values wants to vanquish another for reasons of land, resources, historical argument, religion or ideology. The instigators of the conflict are unlikely to be dissuaded by any communication short of believable threat of annihilation. The people who may be dissuaded are the followers or those who support the fighters in some way.

    Understanding values offers one of the greatest benefits to effective influence and communication campaigns. Because they operate at a deep emotional level, messages that appeal to values are far more influential (for good or ill) than messages that address attitudes or behavior — they resonate more deeply and they are more memorable. If we want to influence behavior, of nations, groups or even the behavior in the marketplace, then the closer we can come to appealing to values, the more likely we are to be effective in our efforts.

    However, there is an important element here: people are very reluctant (absent force) to act in opposition to their values — especially when they are tied to ideology, religion or honor. The West has sometimes failed to take cognizance of this, and thus campaigns have failed. Understanding values thoroughly enables the crafting of more effective campaigns.

    Many strategic communications campaigns, information operations and psychological operations have addressed behavior. Clearly, we would like to prevent people from joining ISIS, for instance, just as we would like to stop people from planting IEDs, but unless we can understand people’s motivations for those actions, that is not likely to happen. And then, once we know their motivations for such behavior in the first place, we need to understand how we, in the West, can motivate them to do differently. And we may not be able to. It may take access to better education, jobs, changes of governments and other action within their own countries.

    Having read interviews with former foreign fighters, especially second-generation Middle Eastern and Asian immigrants from the United Kingdom and the United States, it seems that some have felt like second class citizens within those countries, unable to make their way in society, the educational system and employment. Shame and guilt, values inculcated in their parents’ countries, are powerful motivators. They seem to need the validation of honor earned in battle to gain a measure of self-worth. Do we know enough to know how to overcome motivations of this sort?

    Finally, what can we do to improve strategic communications? The first thing is to think strategically. Think about Nth order effects. If we have a vision and strategy with respect to a particular country or terrorist group, for instance, then responses to events can be crafted in the context of that trajectory, and can be aligned with the overall strategy. If we have no strategy, then no amount of reactionary crisis communications can make up for that lack of strategy. (more…)

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